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Spiritual Formation Community as the Matrix of Christian Spiritual Formation

Dr Alex Tang

18 Nov 2013

East Asia School of Theology (EAST), Singapore

EAST Faculty Development Seminar


A holistic Christian spiritual formation community (SFC) matrix contains the components of practice, worship, and instruction in the context of a community. The goals of the spiritual formation community matrix paradigm are that members of the faith community (1) grow into Christ-likeness, (2) become a people of God, and (3) build the kingdom of God and heal the whole of creation (shalom). Its essential components are the spiritual formation elements interacting in a spiritual formation community (more on this later) that acts as a crucible for CSF in individuals and the community itself. The faith community is central in this paradigm. The success of the paradigm depends on the intentionality and commitment of the community’s leaders and members to spiritual formation in their community and to focus all their efforts on it. Intentionality is essential because the leaders and members believe the need for spiritual formation so deeply that they want to do something about it. This intentionality will need to translate into commitment. They have to be committed to change their perceptions about spiritual formation approaches in their faith communities, initiate and sustain the spiritual formation elements, elicit the help of the Holy Spirit, and deal with the challenges that will arise during the process of spiritual formation. It may require the initiators of the paradigm to be personally changed first and then to initiate community changes through the spiritual formation elements. The paradigm affects changes both in individuals and in community ethos.

The SFC paradigm consists of a spiritual formation community and the interactions of the Holy Spirit, human response, and spiritual formation elements within that community. The interactions of the Holy Spirit and the human response (intentionality) together with the spiritual formation elements of growing into Christ-likeness, enhancing spiritual learning, growing community, building relationship, and being missional may be considered an infinite loop. The infinite loop signifies that spiritual formation is an ongoing process. This loop is situated in a spiritual formation community. This faith community has special attributes that enable it to be a crucible for spiritual formation and transformation.

Christian educator Suzanne Johnson (1989) introduces a conceptual model for Christian education that is centred in the local SFC . Her understanding of the function of socialisation is similar to my idea of spiritual formation and forms the foundational basis of my paradigm. Before presenting her model, Johnson notes:

Where we find the church becoming itself, we find a community of lived faith where persons welcome strangers as bearing potential gifts; a community where diversity is celebrated and not looked upon as annoyance or threat; a community that nourishes individuality, avoiding both excess individualism and excess conformism; a community that provides equal access to leadership; a community that repents, prays, and praises together. This is the shape of life in the Realm of God! (86)

Johnson’s model revolves around three dynamic processes—praxis, worship, and instruction—that build Christian character within a community (1989, 145).

·       Praxis involves a “total complex of action”[1] in the daily lives of believers. Johnson’s notion of praxis bears some resemblance to the spiritual formation elements of building relationships, being missional, promoting intentionality, and developing community.

·       Worship is a “pervasive posture of life” through immersion in God’s grace that is similar to the spiritual formation elements of growing into Christ-likeness, reinforcing intentionality, and depending on the Holy Spirit.

·       Instruction entails learning about and being involved in the Christian story. It includes theological reflection on Johnson’s “total complex of action” in daily activities. It is similar to the spiritual formation elements of enhancing spiritual learning and cultivating intentionality.

Johnson’s model emphasises the components of practice, worship, and instruction in the context of a community. The nature of a community is essential in either enhancing or inhibiting spiritual formation.

The SFC paradigm I propose will be clarified under the following rubrics:

1. The foundations of the paradigm,

2. The role of the spiritual formation community,

3. The role of the spiritual formation elements,

4. The role of the Holy Spirit and human intentionality.



The foundations of the SFC paradigm will be discussed as follows:

a. Theological and biblical foundations

b. Psychosocial foundations

a. Theological and biblical foundations

The SFC paradigm is based on the biblical foundational concepts of restoring the imago Dei, communion with the triune God, and participation in the missio Dei. This paradigm equates with the spiritual formation[2] goals of (1) growing into Christ-likeness, (2) becoming a people of God, and (3) building the kingdom of God and healing the whole of creation (shalom) and uses the following formative strands to achieve these goals: (1) person-in-formation, (2) persons-in-community formation, and (3) persons-in-mission formation.

John Calvin’s teaching on spiritual growth as a process of becoming is apt in the context of spiritual formation. This process is not of becoming something else but as a process of restoring what is already there. There are individual and corporate components to this restoration. These components are so interconnected that it is difficult to separate them. For discussion, it will be dealt with separately.

First, the individual component is personal but not individualistic. It is personal in that it helps the individual to change to become like Christ in character. This aspect of spiritual growth is not an individualistic exclusive personal relationship with the risen Christ but an inclusive relationship with Christ and other people. Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema’s (1986) reference to God’s redemptive work in an individual from “renewed image” to “perfected image” offers a framework to this component of the process.

Second, the corporate component is that of communion with God. Individuals are invited and enabled to join in and be part of the Triune Godhead through Christ. This brings them into God’s household and makes them God’s people, created in the imitatios Trinitatis.

Finally, the individual and corporate components come together to complete Christ’s mission on earth – the establishment of the kingdom of God. This is restoring shalom to the world and its peoples. This becoming is the eschatological restoration of the shalom of the new heaven and earth.

To summarise, the theological and biblical foundations of this paradigm are based on Calvin’s theological concept of becoming which is a process of restoring the image of God, becoming a people of God, and as agents for missio Deo.

b. Psychosocial foundations

The SFC paradigm may also be considered a mind-heart approach to spiritual formation. While maintaining the Reformed emphasis on spiritual learning, it balances that emphasis with an equal emphasis on relationships and emotions. Human beings are complex creations. Faith formation occurs at different levels at any point in time. Most theories of faith formation focus on the cognitive level; few studies have focused on the affective level and even fewer on the subconscious level. I suggest that an integrated synthesis of Loder’s (1989) “logic of transformation,” Shults and Sandage’s (2006) “intensification model of spiritual transformation,” Willard’s (2002) “biblical heart” concept, and systems theory may offer an insightful understanding of the foundations of SFC paradigm.

Loder (1989) starts with the four dimensions of self, world, void, and the Holy. The Reformed tradition that the flesh (sinful human nature), the world, and Satan oppose the work of God in the spiritual life of people closely approximates this concept. Normally, these dimensions are in a sort of equilibrium, but anything that challenges this equilibrium may lead to a cascade of events that Loder describes as the logic of transformation. This dynamic consists of five steps that end with a resolution, whereupon the person moves back into the “dwelling” phase. Otherwise, he or she ends up in a wandering cycle that may last for years.

If the search is successful, the person may end up with convictional knowing, which is transformative. I suspect that such knowing is similar to discovery of a new worldview that brings with it a new reality and its new way of looking at things. The person may then live with this new worldview for a time, finding a place of spiritual “dwelling” until something else disturbs the status quo and sets again into action the logic of transformation. This process may recur until the self is so close to the Holy that it has the character of Christ. The scanning and insight solution, however, may not always be positive and lead a person to the Holy. Negative influences from the world and the void can hijack the process and lead one astray.

The concepts of spiritual questing and spiritual “dwelling” are important in building an integrated framework to facilitate CSF. Spiritual “dwelling” may be a safe place for people to rest, process their experiences, deepen their understanding, and learn about the core content of their faith. While it does not have to be a physical place, a spiritual “dwelling” is often a SFC . The SFC  may be a place for both spiritual “dwelling” and spiritual seeking. Many formative processes may be embedded within a SFC  in equipping a person for the scanning and constructive act-of-imagination phases of the transformational logic that leads to transformation. The enculturation of such formative processes may shorten the time of scanning and reduce the chances of poor theological choices. Having correct relationships with self, others, and God is an important aspect, as suggested by Shults and Sandage’s (2006) relational intensity, intentionality, and intimacy leading to redemptive intimacy. Being in correct realtionships may enable a person-in-formation to be able to counter the negative influences of the world and the void. Furthermore, those who re-enter the place of spiritual “dwelling” after their experience of transformation may contribute by fine-tuning spiritually formative elements, thus helping others on the same journey.

Often, spiritual “dwelling” may be considered a context or container for faith formation. One metaphor used is a crucible,[3] which Sandage describes as a “container that can hold the intense heat that fires human ‘jars of clay’,” which are hard pressed from every side “for transformational shaping” (2002, 238). The “biblical heart” imbued with a strong sense of sin and a deep desire for communion with God is the prime motivator for faith formation. The sense of sin and the hunger for God come only from the Holy Spirit. They, in turn, lead back to Loder’s (1989) logic of transformation and Willard’s (2002) volitional intentionality.

The SFC becomes a matrix of formative influences in Shults and Sandage’s (2006) model. However, systems theory seems to reveal a larger role for the SFC that is a learning organisation with its own faith formation and community ethos. Failure to grasp this community ethos may cause disruption in the logic of transformation, the result being that convictional knowing is not realised. Thus, the SFC as a place of spiritual “dwelling” can become dysfunctional, forcing everyone out to become seekers and, later, wanderers.

Spiritual formation is not efficient, calculable, predictable, or controllable. Spiritual growth is messy. As one progresses, one is always faced with difficult choices. Educator Suzanne Johnson correctly observes that spiritual formation is dynamic and always changing (1989, 111–17). The Reformed tradition maintains that CSF is a continual struggle of the inner self, with advances and backsliding, until one receives a glorified body. Most Reformed thinkers, such as Carl Ellis Nelson, James E. Loder, Craig Dykstra, and Richard Robert Osmer have problems with Fowler’s stages-of-faith theory (Astley and Francis, 1992). Questioning Fowler’s theory in making developmental stages normative, Loder and Fowler note that some issues arise because of Fowler’s “failure to clarify the faith standpoint from which faith is being observed and partly with [his] making universalizing the normative goal for faith development” (Loder and Fowler 1982, 137).

The SFC matrix paradigm highlights two essential components in CSF: (1) the formative processes and (2) the formative community. Transformational logic, convictional knowing, spiritual seeking, and volitional development of the biblical heart are formative processes. These are the formative strands of person-in-formation, persons-in-community, and persons-in-mission. The organisational learning, spiritual “dwelling” places, and a setting for the interaction of these formative processes make up the formative community, implying a nurturing faith community that facilitates such interactions.

The Holy Spirit has a vital role in the transformation process. Though it does not appear in their diagram, Shults and Sandage acknowledge the importance of the Holy Spirit in stating that “our understanding of the creaturely human spirit will be shaped (whether consciously or not) by our understanding of the creative divine Spirit” (2006, 39). In the area of formation and transformation, the role of the Holy Spirit cannot be overemphasised.

To summarise, Loder’s (1989) “logic of transformation” is a starting place for the processes of CSF. Convictional knowing comes at the end because it leads to a new spiritual “dwelling”. The motivation for this journey, which is prompted by crisis, is a biblical heart that has a strong sense of sin and a great hunger for God. The SFC may shape the faith-formation process through its communal ethos. The key components are the formative processes and formative communities. Thus, there are sound theological, biblical, and psychosocial foundations for the SFC paradigm.



Angela Reed’s concept of “a call to one anothering” is a suitable definition of a spiritual formation community, though she uses it in the context of spiritual guidance. She notes “one anothering” includes “the invitation to encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 3:13), instruct one another (Rom. 15:14), speak to one another in psalms and hymns (Eph. 5:19), admonish one another (Col. 3:16), confess sins to one another (Jas. 5:16) and spur one another toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24)” (Reed 2010, 2011, 13–14; author’s italics). Spiritual formation is not solely an individual process of development. A “one anothering” community is needed to foster spiritual growth.

A spiritual formation community is a “one anothering” community. I define it as a community that is a crucible for spiritual formation elements to act and interact in the process of spiritual formation. I build on Foster’s (2006) concept of “spiritual formation-based congregations.” The characteristics of a spiritual formation community which I have modified are:

a.   The community accepts that spiritual formation is foundational to the congregational life;

b.   The community is a safe spiritual dwelling;

c.   The community’s leaders and members are fully committed to and participate in spiritual formation;

d.   The community provides continuity and identity,

e.   The community has a balanced mix of service and relational-orientation.

a.   The community accepts that spiritual formation is foundational to the individual and congregational life.

The community is fully aware of what spiritual formation is and is willing to commit to this process as the foundations of the community. This commitment implies that the community recognises that it exists to foster spiritual formation as its main task or priority. The community should recognise that spiritual formation involves intentional actions and offer opportunities for its members to develop formative habits, and master spiritual disciplines.

Table 5 shows some of the formative action plans essential for a spiritual formation community. These suggested formative initiatives are helpful in promoting spiritual formation when they are performed with the intention of spiritual growth and not as a duty. Using these initiatives, the faith communities can plan for formative activities that will help to fulfil the desired outcomes.


Table 5. Formative action plans in a spiritual formation community

Spiritual formation

Formative action plans


·     Helping members to develop a personal relationship with Christ

·     Helping members to understand the Bible in depth

·     Helping members to develop a prayer life

·     Helping members to know and practise the spiritual disciplines

·     Helping members in times of emotional, spiritual, and physical needs

·     Providing a clear pathway to guide spiritual growth

Persons-in-community formation

·     Embedding the bible in community culture

·     Making learning an important part of community culture

·     Challenging members to grow spiritually

·     Empowering and training of church leaders

·     Empowering and equipping members to serve

·     Help members feel that they belong/ inspire a sense of church ownership

·     Have strong ministry programmes for children

·     Modelling to members on how to grow spiritually

·     Encouraging accountability

·     Providing compelling worship

·     Setting clear expectations on members’ participation

·     Providing opportunities for members to minister to one another

·     Christian practices

Persons-in-mission formation

·     Promoting a strong serving culture

·     Providing a chance to serve those in need

·     Promoting an outward looking missional community culture

Note: Some of these formative activities are modified based on the REVEAL report on “What Do People Want the Church to Do Better?” (Hawkins and Parkinson 2011, 189).


b.   The community is a safe spiritual dwelling.

People need “safe spaces” for their spiritual journey. Educator Parker J. Palmer notes that persons are able to grow in a holistic way only when they feel safe (2004, 25–29). As noted in the intensification model of spiritual transformation, people move back and forth between places of rest and seeking during their lifelong journeys. The model also emphasises a container or place for spiritual transformation to take place. The SFC may be a place for people to rest and reflect when they cease from their seeking. Even their seeking can take place within the SFC. The key to growing a nurturing community is to cultivate right relationships and love.

The community will have to develop a culture of tolerance and allow room for questions and doubts. Members of the community may have to learn not to be too critical of others while holding to their own core beliefs and values. This is the hospitality that welcomes strangers who may be different. Catholic spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen (1996) describes this hospitality;

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place…The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance to their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocation. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own (71-72)

The spiritual formation community is a safe place for people on spiritual quest and people to rest from their spiritual questing. It is a safe spiritual “dwelling.”


c.   The community’s leaders and members are fully committed to and participate in spiritual formation.

For the community to be successful as a crucible for the spiritual formation elements to act, the leaders and the laypeople of the community must be fully committed. Without this intentionality, it will not work. The leaders and the laypeople are to be committed to and are themselves participating in the spiritual formation elements. Their full commitments are essential for the community to function. This will imply that they recognise that spiritual formation is an ongoing process that takes time and not a programme.

The key change may not come only from the cognitive affirmation by the leaders that change is necessary but by the inner transformation of the leaders. Pastor Mike Lueken, who with co-pastor Ken Carlson transformed their seeker megachurch into a spiritual formation-oriented church, identifies the key to the transformation:

We needed unhurried, luxurious time in solitude, doing nothing. We needed to experiment with simplicity. We needed to deal with our anger and lust. We needed to learn how to abandon the outcome of our work. We needed to slow down. We needed to learn how to be with God without an agenda. (Carlson and Lueken 2011, 41)

The key is in spiritual formation of the leaders so that they will seek after spiritual formation of their congregations rather than seeking after ministry success such as numbers, large church properties, and popular acclaim. Hence the vital need for pastors and leaders to be fully committed and participating in spiritual formation in a spiritual formation community.


d.   The community provides continuity and identity

There appears to have been a unified sense of identity among the early Christian churches. New Testament theologian Ben Witherington, commenting on the early Church, says that “[h]ere again the ancient collectivist culture suggests that the group defines the identity of the individuals in it, not the other way around” (1998, 222). This has important implications for our understanding of spiritual relationships in an organic nurturing community. As Meeks elaborates:

The one God of the Christians, as of the Jews, is personal and active. His spirit or, alternately, the spirit of his Son, acts in, on, and with individual believers and the whole community. The social correlate is the intimacy of the local household. A high level of commitment is demanded, the degree of direct interpersonal engagement is strong, the authority structure is fluid (though not exclusively), and the internal boundaries are weak (but not troublesome). (1983, 190)

Such a community with the social intimacy of a household, high level of commitment, and good relationships is an appropriate matrix for spiritual formation in the ESPCMs. The identity of the individual is not lost but spiritually formed as the nurturing community itself is transformed into Christ-likeness. This goal prevents a Christian faith community from devolving into a cult.

The sense of continuity is also important for spiritual formation, for in this age, there is much movement of people who relocate frequently because of job opportunities or other reasons. Relocation often means beginning as strangers. It takes time to become part of a new community. In the meantime, the sense of linkage and belonging to the old community provide the continuity for spiritual formation.


e. The community is a balanced mix of service- and relational-orientation

In studying Paul’s idea of community, Banks (1994) discovered that Paul uses two key metaphors. One describes the community as a loving family and the other as a service-oriented body. Expanding on the first, Banks writes:

The concrete actions that characterise this community of love may be described as acts of identification on the one hand, or substitution on the other. Identification, the solidarity of the members with one another, goes beyond mere sociality, for each is inextricably involved in the life of the other. Substitution, bearing one another’s burdens in quite tangible ways, goes beyond mere helplessness or even compassion. Prayer made by one member of the community for another and especially suffering undergone by one member on behalf of another are just two examples of what is here in view. (54)

Paul’s metaphor of a community as being a loving family closely resembles my understanding of a relational-oriented community. However, Paul also describes a service-oriented community (Banks 1994, 58–66). A spiritual formation community needs to be a balanced mixed of relational and service oriented community.

In summary, a spiritual formation community with spiritual formation and discipleship as foundational to the congregational life provides a safe spiritual “dwelling”, whose leaders and members are fully committed to and participate in spiritual formation, providing continuity and identity. In addition, its having a balanced mix of service and relational-orientation is an ideal setting for a SFC paradigm.



A biblical, theological, and literature survey of the nature and process of spiritual formation in revealed seven elements of spiritual formation essential to the formative strands of person-in-formation, persons-in-community formation, and persons-in-mission formation. These elements need to act together in a spiritual formation community to affect spiritual formation. The nuance of the phrase spiritual formation elements is a reminder that they are a means not an end in and of themselves.

In the crucible of a spiritual formation community, a synergy exists because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In this section, the following five elements will be discussed in the context of such synergy. The remaining two spiritual formation elements of intentionality and dependence on the Holy Spirit will be discussed as part of these five elements:

a. Growing into Christ-likeness,

b. Building relationships,

c. Being missional,

d. Enhancing spiritual learning,

e. Developing community.


a. Growing into Christ-likeness

Growing into Christ-likeness is the process of restoring the fallen imago Dei. It involves one’s being continually aware of God’s presence within the context of daily life. More specifically, it involves seeing God at work not only in the big things but also in the mundane routine of everyday existence. Living such a life includes taking the metanarrative of the Christian story seriously. Embracing this metanarrative as the overarching narrative of one’s life means that one recognises God’s abiding presence. Doing so enriches people’s lives with new meaning and purpose. It also enables them to be transformed to become like Christ to carry on his mission of redemption, the missio Dei. The process of maturing spiritually into Christ-likeness will be considered under the following headings:

i. Discipleship,

ii. Assimilating Christian values,

iii. Living the Christian story.

i. Discipleship

The New Testament refers to Jesus’ followers as disciples (mathētēs) 262 times. However, the term was rare in the Old Testament and not used at all in the Epistles (Wilkins 1996). This fact indicates that there is a difference between being a disciple in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and in the Epistles. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were called to cultic temple worship. They were covenant-holders with Yahweh, not disciples. In the Gospels, on the other hand, the disciples were followers of Jesus Christ and were continually living in his presence. This situation was unique because it would never be repeated. In the Epistles, the followers of Jesus no longer had Christ with them in person, so they had to depend on the Gospels and the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, they continued to follow his teachings and pattern their lives after his. Thus, while it is easy to define what is meant by disciples, it is harder to define discipleship.

The understanding of discipleship has changed since the middle of the twentieth century.[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines discipleship as “allegiance to the suffering Christ” (1959, 91). Offering a contemporary definition, Dallas Willard writes that “discipleship is a life of learning from Jesus Christ how to live in the Kingdom of God now, as he himself did” (2006, 62), adding that “spiritual formation in Christ is the process whereby the innermost being of the individual (the heart, will, or spirit)[5] takes on the quality or character of Jesus himself” (2006, 53). Willard indicates that, while discipleship and spiritual formation overlap, the latter is a more holistic term (process of character formation) of which discipleship (how to live in the Kingdom of God) forms a subset.

Discipleship, I maintain, involves following Christ by living a life in obedience to his teachings in everyday life. Here, I am not referring to contemporary discipleship but to a relationship that is similar to what Collinson (1994) suggests. It includes all the elements of spiritual formation: becoming Christ-like, building relationships, maturing in missional outreach, acting with intentionality, seeking spiritual learning, depending on the Holy Spirit, and developing community. Discipleship thus facilitates person-in-formation, persons-in-community formation, and persons-in-mission formation.

ii. Assimilating Christian values

The assimilation of Christian values[6] is an important aspect of growing into Christ-likeness. New and young Christians are required to learn these values if they are to grow into Christ-likeness, become part of the people of God, and establish the kingdom. In “How Learners Respond to the Teaching of Beliefs and Values,” Hill (2008) identifies three dimensions of how students respond to the teaching of values: the cognitive, the emotional, and the volitional. He points out that the emotional dimension is more important than the cognitive because it influences the volitional in prioritising values. This observation is in agreement with the findings of Willard (2002) and Wilhoit (2008), reinforcing the popular maxim that “values are caught, not taught.” The transmission of values is best done in a community. Socialisation, mentoring, and role modelling are appropriate ways to inculcate values, especially in spiritual formation.

iii. Living the Christian story

Some stories are metanarratives, offering large ideas, while others are merely parts of a metanarrative. Suzanne Johnson observes that Christians are “shaped by three basic texts of story: (1) life story, (2) cultural story, and (3) Christian Story” (1989, 90). The Bible contains the Christian story,[7] a metanarrative that tells of the love of God for humanity and His plan to redeem the whole of creation. Thus, instead of theology’s being a study only of propositions, some scholars conceive of it as a study of narratives (Hauerwas and Jones 1997). Brian McLaren calls this biblical account a “redemptive metanarrative” because, unlike others, it does not impose itself as the only one.[8] It allows other narratives to join it.

This metanarrative is an important part of Christians’ journeys in spiritual formation. It helps them to develop an identity as adopted children of God. It also shows them where they are going.[9] An important step in becoming Christ-like is to discover one’s identity through restoring the fallen imago Dei. The telling and retelling of the Exodus narrative—which recounts God’s faithfulness, deliverance, protection, and guidance—is an example of using stories to educate in the Old Testament. H. Richard Niebuhr (1997) makes the important observation that the preaching of the early Church was not only about doctrine but also about the narratives of the Jesus story and the experiences of Christian communities.[10] Michael Root concurs, arguing that Christian soteriology derives its “structure and explanatory power” as a function of its narrative form (1997, 263). The process of becoming like Christ involves discovering one’s own personal story, adapting to one’s cultural heritage, and relating it to God’s metanarrative.

In summary, for a person to grow into Christ-likeness involves becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, assimilating Christian values, and living the Christian story.


b. Building relationships

Building and maintaining human relationships affects spiritual formation on many levels. The relationships of spiritual formation involve knowing and loving God, knowing and loving ourselves, and knowing and loving our neighbours (Mk. 12:30-31). God is a self-revealing God, and one may get to know him by reading Scripture, imitating Christ, appreciating his creation, and following the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Henri Nouwen (1989) likens spiritual formation to a process of slowly falling in love with God. It is a loving relationship based on the perichoresis of the triune God. The spiritual formation process of building relationship may be considered under the following:

i. A life of relationships

ii. A life of worship

i. A life of relationships

The basis of relationships in spiritual formation is Trinitarian in the call of God the Father, the finished work of Jesus Christ the Son, and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. Michael Downey comments, “From the perspective of Trinity as interpersonal communion, human life in Christ by the Spirit is a call to loving communion with God, others and every living creature” (2005, 624). Human persons are invited to join in communion with the Triune godhead. The Trinity serves as the basis and model for human relationships. Puritan theologian John Owen, in his 1657 book Communion with the Triune God, described in detail the communion possible with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He noted, “Our communion then with God consists in [H]is communication of [H]imself unto us, with our return unto [H]im of that which [H]e requires and accepts, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with [H]im” (2007, 94).

Aside from communion with God, relationships in a faith community are enriched through developing relationships. Relationships in a spiritual formation community may involve spiritual friendship, discipling, mentoring, coaching, and leadership. Often the basis of these relationships is spiritual friendship. Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth-century Cistercian monk described spiritual friendship well:

But what happiness, what security, what joy to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in the spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans! What, therefore, is more pleasant than so to unite to oneself the spirit of another and of two to form one, that no boasting is thereafter to be feared, no suspicion to be dreaded, no correction of one by the other to cause pain, no praise on the part of one to bring a charge of adulation from the other. “A friend,” says the Wise Man, “is the medicine of life.” (1977, 2:11–12)

Though he was describing spiritual friendship in a religious community, it may be equally applied in a spiritual formation community. Relationship within a spiritual formation community provides a sense of belonging, individual and communal identity, emotional and spiritual support, security, and acceptance, especially in times of spiritual seeking and counsel in ethical living.

ii. A life of worship

Worship is the human response to the Creator God who is both immanent and transcendent. This response may be awe and adoration. It may also be a heightened awareness of one’s sinfulness and a stirring of the biblical heart. Worship is the response evoked by discovery of who the “I AM WHO I AM” (Gen. 3:14) really is. It may also involve a loving invitation to join in the perichoresis of the triune God.

Thus, worship may be understood as “pure adoration, the lifting up of the redeemed spirit towards God in contemplation of [H]is holy perfection” (Harrison 1984, 1193). Worship in its broadest sense is service for God. Worship in a Sunday service encompasses rituals or liturgies, Scripture reading, preaching, fellowship, and the sacraments. Writing about public worship, Christian educator Kenneth O. Gangel (1994) suggests that it has three objectives for spiritual formation: (1) communication, (2) celebration, and (3) comprehension. Gangel likens communication in public worship to “practicing God’s presence” (1994, 118). Celebration, he goes on to explain, is a response to God’s work in the world, and comprehension occurs when people “learn theology as . . . a foundation for life change and transformation” (1994, 121). Adding to that observation, James C. Wilhoit notes that “[w]orship filled with prayer and praise and opportunities for confession, repentance, receiving the sacraments, hearing and giving testimonies of God’s activity, and learning/challenge is the most important context of community formation” (2008, 86).

To summarise, building relationship involves the vertical and horizontal. The vertical is building relationship through worship, and the horizontal is building relationships with other people.


c.   Being missional

Being missional derives from the biblical concept of shalom and God’s plan of redemption for his creation. It involves living out the Trinitarian view of mission as espoused by missiologist Leslie Newbigin (1995)—proclaiming the kingdom of the Father (faith in action), sharing the life of the Son (love in action), and bearing witness of the Spirit (hope in action). All these mandates are encapsulated in the Christian story. Clarifying the role of mission and the nature of the church, theologian Ray S. Anderson (2006) writes,

If the mission of Christ through the presence and power of the Spirit determines the nature and ministry of the church, then we should expect that mission itself becomes the source of the renewed vision and life of the church. This is why mission, rather than ministry, expands God’s kingdom and renews the spiritual life of the church. Ministry expends Spirit in programs and body building; mission breathes in Spirit and promotes body movement... For the church to be both incarnational and Pentecostal in its theology and praxis, it must recover the dynamic relationship between its nature and mission” (186–187)

The nature of the church is the continuing mission of God through Jesus. Christians are to be fully engaged with this world; otherwise, Jesus would not have prayed for his disciples’ to fulfil the Great Commission (Jn. 17:15). This mission involves (1) living as a people of God, a people set aside for God’s redemptive purpose; (2) living in the kingdom of God now while also anticipating its completion when Jesus comes again; and (3) living with the eschatological hope of the future when God recreates the heavens and earth. To be missional, then, is to be engaged with the world outside the SFC s. Such engagement entails seeking justice for the oppressed, helping the sick and the poor, providing for orphans and widows, and bringing both “light” and “salt” to the world (Matt. 5:13–14).

Being missional also involves reconciliation. God has made possible the reconciliation of human beings with himself by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, believers have to bear witness to those who have not heard the Gospel and facilitate their reconciliation with God. “Evangelism is an essential part of spiritual formation,” Wilhoit comments. “Evangelism, as people are called to faith in Christ, is the initial act of Christian formation. The act of evangelism is a powerful means of formation for the believer who reaches out of love to share the good news” (2008, 167).

Such missional activism involves moving into areas where people have not heard of the Christian story, instead of waiting for them to come to the faith community. Australian mission strategists Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch emphasise this point by their use of the terms attractional and incarnational to describe two quite different SFC  models. An attractional SFC  invites people to “hear the [G]ospel in the holy confines of the church and its community.” An incarnational SFC , in contrast, goes to where people are because it sees the world as a “web, a series of intersecting lines symbolizing the networks of relationships, friendships, and acquaintances of which church members are a part” (2003, 41–46). An incarnational SFC  is a relationship-oriented community. Even in Presbyterian churches, given their strong belief in predestination, the command to bring in the “elect” still applies. This differentiation is also highlighted in Darrell L. Guder’s (1998) collection Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.[11] In summary, being missional requires believers to engage with the world and share the Gospel by moving to where the people are (outside the SFCs).


d. Enhancing spiritual learning

Spiritual learning is the process of developing “convictional knowing.” As discussed earlier, James E. Loder defines it as “the patterned process by which the Holy Spirit transforms all transformations of the human spirit” (1989, 93). It involves dealing with challenges through critical thinking and reflection. Spiritual learning is an ongoing process that includes a willingness to learn from the Holy Spirit and the Bible, as well as others in the SFCs. Spiritual learning has two important components:

i. Bible-centredness

ii. Critical thinking

i. Bible-centredness

Scripture is the major source of God’s revelation. John Calvin had such a high view of Scripture that he gave the following title to Book 1, Chapter 6, of his Institutes: “Scripture is needed as a guide and teacher for anyone who would come to God the creator.” To support this point, Calvin used three metaphors: (1) Scripture is like spectacles so that the visually challenged may see better; (2) Scripture is like a thread that may lead a person through a labyrinth; and (3) Scripture is like a teacher (1960, 69–73). Steve S. Kang, similarly, notes that “it is through such careful reading of the Bible, in the context of such a kingdom in the [C]hurch, that spiritual formation of believers must take place” (2002, 138).

The Reformed tradition takes the task of teaching Scripture seriously. John H. Leith points out that “[t]he focus of the Reformed emphasis on the [W]ord is preaching” (1981, 227). The sermon is the focal point of a Presbyterian worship service, as noted earlier. Aside from listening to the Word’s being preached, the Reformed tradition has always emphasised learning. The catchphrase in early Reformism is “the life of the mind as the service of God.” Calvin’s teaching about “double knowledge”—knowledge of God and knowledge of the work of the Holy Spirit in the self—is insightful in this regard (1960, 35–38). Leith further mentions that Calvin “made knowledge as well as personal commitment a condition for admission to the communion table” (1981, 80–81). Calvin was not being legalistic but believed that people should have some knowledge of God because their commitment should not be based on blind faith.

ii. Critical thinking

Another important aspect of spiritual learning is critical thinking and theological reflection. In concluding their survey of the history and philosophy of Christian education, educators Michael J. Anthony and Warren S. Benson (2003) offer seven suggestions for reform in the twenty-first century. One is the need for Christians to develop critical-thinking skills.[12] American educator Stephen D. Brookfield, in his book Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting, summarises the commonly accepted components of critical thinking as (1) identifying and challenging assumptions, (2) examining the context of a situation, (3) imagining and exploring alternatives, and (4) “reflective skepticism” (1987, 7–9).

Critical thinking starts with examining the assumptions that underlie ideas, values, actions, and beliefs that often are taken for granted. These assumptions are checked for accuracy and validity. If they are found to be false, new assumptions will have to be framed. Critical thinkers are aware that “context influences thoughts and actions” (Brookfield 1987, 8). Another feature of critical thinking is the ability to conceive of alternatives. Formulating alternatives to what once was merely assumed to be true makes for a reflective sceptic who examines everything. Critical thinking is an essential aspect of spiritual formation, especially in the ESPCMs, because it enables a person to evaluate the insidious influences of religious polarisation, Islamisation, and globalisation. To summarise, spiritual learning is Bible-centric and involve critical thinking and reflection.


e. Developing community

Developing community involves time, effort, and commitment. It incorporates intentionality, loving relationships, and other spiritual formation elements. Most of Paul’s epistles were written to communities rather than individuals. Though most are in response to certain crises within these communities, they also contain advice about relationships as well as collective behaviour, practices, and beliefs in the communities. For example, the “armour of God” in Ephesians 6:13–18 is often interpreted as though it were written for individuals. Paul, however, may have intended for the community of faith in Ephesus rather than individual Christians to put on the metaphorical armour. Paul wanted to convey the impression of a community in battle yet wants to make the engagement personal. Thus, Paul wanted the whole community to be involved without denying the importance of the individual within the community.

An example is the ancient Jewish community. Walter Brueggemann argues that the Torah is a non-negotiable “statement of community ethos.” He goes on to say, “[I]t is clear that the community precedes the individual person, that the community begins by stating its parameters and the perceptual field in which the new person must live and grow” (1982, 12). The Jews during New Testament times saw themselves as God’s chosen people and traced their lineage to Abraham. Gentile and Jewish Christians alike understood themselves to be a new creation, the Church.

Paul and the New Testament house churches[13] drew heavily from the spiritual formation practices of the Jews. There were four groups of communities during that period: (1) the household; (2) voluntary associations (sporting clubs and so on); (3) religious groups, such as the synagogues; and (4) schools teaching philosophy and rhetoric. It is important to know on which group the house church modelled itself because the origin will give some clues to the New Testament church’s foundational pattern. It is too easy to assume that the New Testament house church was based on the synagogue, but recent scholarship seems to indicate that it was modelled after voluntary associations that met in homes (Gehring 2004, 17–27). The oikos or household was the local meeting place of Christians. The New Testament church, in other words, was never meant to be a school. This is a sad indictment of the SFC s’ adoption of the schooling-instructional approach as its predominant pedagogy.

Both Foster (1994) and Westerhoff ([1976] 2000) recognise that powerful formative forces work in community. Furthermore, New Testament theologian James M. Howard (2007) points out that much scholarly understanding of the Pauline theology of community is individualistic. He argues instead that the basis of Pauline theology is community based and that a community is essential for growth into Christ-likeness, both for members of the community and for the community itself. Thus, to summarise, there is an intentional need for believers to be proactive in building their faith communities so they can come together to support one another, stand together in spiritual warfare, and help one another to grow spiritually. The spiritual formation community is one such faith community.



The five spiritual formation elements of growing into Christ-likeness, enhancing spiritual learning, being missional, building relationships, and growing community are important contributing factors in the SFC paradigm – and they are all infused with the elements of the role of the Holy Spirit and human intentionality.

But these two elements also need to be treated separately.

The transformative role of the Holy Spirit and the importance of the human response in a SFC paradigm needs to be emphasised. Dependence on the Holy Spirit and intentionality are crucial spiritual formation elements because both are volitional acts on the part of those who desire to be spiritually formed. The Holy Spirit acts not by coercion but by invitation (human intentionality).

The Holy Spirit is the agent of spiritual transformation. Gordon D. Fee (1994), a Pentecostal theologian, argues that there can be no spiritual growth without guidance by the Holy Spirit in the intentional and regular study of Scripture. James Loder (1989) believes that true spiritual growth cannot be planned but occurs during life crises called “transformative moments.” Nevertheless, he advocates that, at ordinary times, spiritual formation may be an ongoing process and that Christians may not be idle until these critical moments appear. He too advocates the intentional study of Scripture. Educator Julie Gorman (1990) identifies these two different approaches as “spontaneous formation” and “deliberate formation.” Spontaneous spiritual formation occurs when people respond positively to kairos moments when God intervenes in a person’s life. Deliberate spiritual formation involves intentionally planned events to help believers develop spiritually.

Despite their differences, both Fee (1994) and Loder (1989) believe strongly in the transformative role of the Holy Spirit. They also recognise that Christians may pursue intentional activities that nurture spiritual growth so that, at the appropriate time, the Holy Spirit will be able to intervene to cause spiritual transformation. Gorman (1990) also recognises the Holy Spirit as the key element in spontaneous and deliberate spiritual formation. Thus, an essential part of CSF is learning how to discern and engage with the Holy Spirit in all aspects of one’s formation. For persons-in-mission formation, people and their community may make a decision to be involved in the missio Dei. However, decision and commitment are often not enough. Learning from the Holy Spirit is essential. Walter Brueggemann (2001) observes that the Holy Spirit will help the poor and the oppressed to see through the false claims of the rich and the powerful that keep them in a state of chronic poverty.

While it may take place without any conscious human effort, spiritual formation generally requires intentionality, in which the volitional will and a willingness to change come into play. Paul encourages the Philippians Christians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to [H]is good purpose” (Phil. 2:12b–13). Willard (1998) and Wilhoit (2008) have highlighted the intentional dimension of spiritual formation by designing a “curriculum for Christ-likeness.” According to Willard, such a curriculum has the twin goals of bringing Christians to the point where they love God and delight in Him and of reprogramming the “automatic” responses of their sinful nature so that they are free from their old “habitual patterns of thought, feeling, and action.” He proposes that this may be achieved by the practice of spiritual disciplines (1998, 321–22). Wilhoit describes his approach to Christ-likeness as one of imitating Christ and responding to his mandate to love both God and one another (2008, 38–51). Both scholars thus recognise that spiritual formation does not occur spontaneously but needs to be undertaken intentionally through reflective living and discipleship.

Intentionality for spiritual formation involves not only the individual believer but also a collaborative community. A focused curriculum for achieving Christ-likeness may be the SFC’s primary task. All its activities may be designed to cultivate Christ-likeness and spiritual formation. They may include practicing the spiritual disciplines, making spiritual friends, being a mentor, giving and receiving spiritual direction, and taking part in Christian practices as a community. These activities do not occur by themselves naturally and effortlessly. Intentionality is the essential first step of spiritual formation.

The motivation for intentionality is awareness of a person’s sinful nature that is the “distorted” image of God, as well as the awareness of a hunger for shalom with God. James C. Wilhoit notes that “[t]he fertile field for formation is a community genuinely aware of the depth of their sin and the reality of their spiritual trust. True formation requires that the community deeply understands that they cannot cure the sickness of their souls through willpower alone” (2008, 63). The individual and the community’s sense of their sinfulness may be balanced by the hunger for God’s shalom; else, they will descend to despair. A healthy balance will promote intentionality for spiritual formation.

Intentionality involves obedience and submission. Obedience is shown when Christians follow Jesus in living missionally and are involved in building relationships, participate actively in spiritual formation communities, commit to ongoing spiritual learning, and are dedicated to growing in holiness or righteousness. Intentionality is demonstrated by living out their lives in submission to the teachings of the Bible, their church traditions, and their SFC s. The Holy Spirit is the generator that powers the elements of spiritual formation while human intentionality is the engine that drives it. Thus, a SFC paradigm requires both the Holy Spirit’s ministration and the intentional commitment of individual SFC members. In summary, the SFC paradigm may be described as a spiritual formation community that acts as a crucible for the spiritual formation elements to act with the formative assent of individuals and transformative action of the Holy Spirit.


To summarise a spiritual formation community paradigm approach to Christian spiritual formation may be a more holistic approach to faith formation that the spiritual formation strategies employed in many Christian faith communities today.




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[1]. S. Johnson (2001) comments, “Christian practices and means of grace provide one important way to understand the normative content or curriculum of Christian spiritual formation in the local church context” (327).

[2] I define Christian spiritual formation as the intentional and ongoing process of inner transformation to become like Jesus Christ himself, to become with others a communal people of God, and to become an agent for God’s redemptive purposes. In this paper, spiritual formation refers to Christian spiritual formation unless otherwise stated.

[3]. Sandage comments on this metaphor with reference to 2 Cor. 4:7–9 and to another related metaphor; “[a]lso note the preceding text on spiritual transformation into the image of Christ, which is described as relational intimacy, using the metaphor of ‘unveiled faces’ (2 Cor. 3:12–18)” (2002, 238n47).

[4]. Dallas Willard (2010b), in a survey of the evangelical influence on discipleship and Christian spiritual life, notes that during the post-World War II period, the emphasis on evangelism and discipleship was largely on making converts who would, in turn, make more converts. In the mid-to-late-twentieth century, the emphasis shifted to professing correct Christian belief. However, cognitive affirmation alone left many followers unsatisfied. This development led to “deeper life” teachings, which are largely devotional, and the emergence of Christian psychology to fill the void. Willard suggests that the emergence of the spiritual formation movement at the end of the twentieth century is another evangelical attempt to fill the “felt needs of many for a spiritual life, in addition to correct beliefs and outward practices.”

[5]. Willard asserts the heart, spirit, and will are one and the same (2006, 53).

[6]. Values are also known as virtues. In a non-Christian context, these are moral virtues. The New Testament offers several summations of Christian virtues in 1 Cor. 13, Gal. 5:22–23, Phil. 4:8, and Col. 3:12–16.

[7]. Theologian Gabriel Fackre sees the Christian Story as divided into “Creation, Fall, Covenant, Jesus Christ, Church, Salvation, Consummation, with their Prologue and Epilogue, God” (1996, 5).

[8]. This point derives from a talk given by McLaren on “Gospel” during a conference held in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, on 3–4 March 2007.

[9]. Theologian Loren T. Stuckenbruck proposes that the Gospel of Mark was written specially for early believers’ spiritual formation because “it draws the [C]hurch into an experience of trust in God who is very much alive” (2002, 90).

[10]. The power of the narrative is evident when it involves our own story. Niebuhr writes, “Whatever it was the [C]hurch meant to say, whatever was revealed or manifested to it, could be indicated only in connection with an historical person and events in the life of his community” (1997, 21).

[11]. This seminal book presents six researchers’ reviews of the literature on the state of churches in North America in light of a “missional ecclesiology.” It is deeply influenced by missiologist and theologian Leslie Newbigin. One of its important emphases is that members of churches may go to where needy people are (missional churches) rather than wait for needy people to come to them (attractional churches). The book is an important stimulus for the emerging church movement but beyond the scope of this dissertation to cover. In addition to the writings of Newbigin (1986, 1989, 1995), Ray S. Anderson presents a theological framework for the movement (2006). In addition, biblical theologian D. A. Carson offers a critique of the theology and key proponents of the movement (2005).

[12]. In their epilogue “Cumulative Lessons from the Past for Twenty-First-Century Christian Education,” Anthony and Benson (2003) suggest the following: (1) the family is a high priority; (2) ministry leaders may lead the way in demonstrating servant leadership; (3) God’s Word is pre-eminent; (4) lay leaders are the foundation of long-term ministry efforts; (5) learn how to explain contemporary culture; (6) critical thinking is a characteristic of spiritual maturity; and (7) change is necessary (419–29).

[13]. The early Christians met in houses for nearly 300 years after Christ’s death until Emperor Constantine began building basilicas and formal places of worship. The communities of early Christians meeting in homes were called house churches (Gehring 2004, 1).




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